The product of an Irish Catholic family from Montreal, Erin O’Toole, a member of Parliament from Ontario, became the leader of the official opposition Conservative Party of Canada on August 24.
Although he is not a social conservative, he has the eye of social conservatives, who want him to recognise the role they played in his election.
O’Toole largely steered clear of issues like assisted suicide and abortion during the Conservative leadership campaign, but in a leaked video in June, he told social conservatives in Quebec he would “probably” vote against legislation to expand assisted suicide, saying that as a Catholic and a lawyer he has “a lot of uncertainty” about euthanasia.
The Conservative Party is a centre-right political party supported by Canadians with a range of conservative views, from social conservatives who hold traditional views on issues like family, religion, and life issues, to fiscal conservatives more concerned with limited government spending. While social conservatives deeply oppose positions O’Toole has taken on social issues, their opposition to the other front-runner, Peter MacKay, ran even deeper because of a comment MacKay made after the last federal election about social conservative issues being a “stinking albatross” around the neck of the party.
O’Toole has said he would not reopen the abortion debate, but he said he would let Conservative caucus members make up their own minds on what he called “moral issues.”
In 2016, he supported Bill C-225, known as Cassie and Molly’s Law, which would have made it an offence to cause injury or death to an unborn born child while committing a crime. He also recently told the pro-life organization Right Now that he supports former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s policy of not using Canada’s foreign aid to fund abortion.
Those positions, which distinguished O’Toole from MacKay, were noted by some groups like Right Now. Pro-life organisations point out that of the top four candidates for the Conservative Party leadership, two strongly supported by social conservative organisations attracted more than 35 per cent of the vote on the first ballot.
“Contrary to the red (liberal) Tory and media narrative that dismisses socially conservative candidates, these results prove that pro-life and pro-family candidates … who are unafraid to champion life and family issues can draw strong support and be contenders,” said Jeff Gunnarson, national president of Campaign Life Coalition.
“We expect that Erin O’Toole will ensure that social conservatives are respected and their values represented within the party going forward,” Gunnarson said.
“If he disrespects the tens of thousands of grassroots members … he will definitely lose the next general election. Everybody knows you can’t win a general election without your base,” he said.
The pro-life organisation We Need A Law expects O’Toole to honour his commitment to allow sitting Conservative legislators to vote as they wish on matters of conscience.
“Mr O’Toole needs to ensure that the Conservative Party makes room for and respects the pro-lifers that assisted in getting him elected as leader,” said Tabitha Ewert, spokeswoman for We Need a Law.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, has made it clear that Liberal members of Parliament must support the party’s pro-abortion position on votes in Parliament, regardless of their personal or religious beliefs.
Brian Dryden is Ottawa correspondent for Canadian Catholic News. Staff of B.C. Catholic contributed to this report.